One year and counting: Section 508

Today, blind U.S. Postal Service customers can buy stamps, check ZIP codes and perform other transactions at an Internet site USPS calls its "cyberspace post office that never closes."

But they can't download usable tax forms from the Internal Revenue Service.

Students seeking financial aid and school officials applying for grants from the Education Department now can do so online despite disabilities — something they couldn't do a year ago. But vision-impaired employees at Education can't process the applications because the department's grants management system is not "accessible."

It has been a year since Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act went into effect, requiring federal agencies to make sure their Web sites and office technology can be used, or "accessed," by people with a variety of disabilities.

So far, progress toward implementing Section 508 has been inconsistent.

The White House, for example, has unveiled a new, largely accessible Web site. And some agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission, now provide news and public notices in accessible formats.

But government employees eager for more education — and the promotion possibilities it might unlock — are apt to be frustrated by agency-sponsored online training courses that fail to include captions for the deaf or audio narration and Braille course materials for the blind.

Inside some government agencies, efforts to achieve Section 508 compliance have sometimes verged on dramatic, as when Education officials made a software vendor fly a team of technicians to Washington, D.C., to fix accessibility problems in an automated travel voucher application before the agency would accept it.

"They sent guys here from California," a department employee marveled.

But instances of such vigorous enforcement appear to be the exception. Advocates for those with disabilities say real progress at most federal agencies remains painfully slow.

"The reports I get from our people are that not much has changed. It's kind of discouraging," said Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind.

Many agencies have focused on improving the accessibility of their Web sites, which are highly visible to the public but represent only one of a half-dozen categories of technology that Section 508 covers. And the others, such as desktop software, telecommunications, office equipment and information transaction machines, may have a far greater impact on employees and their ability to do their jobs.

A Case in Point

For instance, Section 508 states that all training and informational video and multimedia productions produced or bought by agencies must have captions and audio narrations.

"But almost none of it is being done," said Larry Goldberg of the National Center for Accessible Media. "It is so doable, the technology is almost mundane," yet many agencies continue to make training tapes and online instruction programs without captions and audio narration, he said.

Instructional material for employees may seem like an obscure sideline in the federal government's use of information technology, but it is an increasingly important one, according to Joy Relton of the American Foundation for the Blind.

"Agencies are going more and more to distance learning and online training," she said. It's inexpensive for the agencies and convenient for employees. And training often is essential for those who need to keep up with fast-changing technology.

But training courses continue to rely heavily on Flash — a type of authoring software that creates animated Web pages — and PDF files. Neither can be read by the screen readers that the blind and visually impaired use.

Flash maker Macromedia Inc. and PDF producer Adobe Systems Inc. are developing more accessible versions of their products, but they are not widely used. So for now, distance learning remains a distant hope for many with disabilities.

But the problem hasn't gone unnoticed by federal officials, said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for IT Accommodation at the General Services Administration.

Accessible online training "is a big issue, one of the top issues" among Section 508 coordinators, she said. The coordinators are senior officials who oversee each agency's Section 508 implementation.

"We have gone to talk to the companies that develop these products," Weaver said, but it will take more time for companies to learn to produce accessible online training programs.

Asking for Time

"More time" may be the accessibility axiom at Section 508's first anniversary.

"Section 508's not an overnight silver bullet," said Laura Ruby, Microsoft Corp.'s accessibility and disabilities program manager.

"We're one year into it now, but the product cycle is six to 24 months," she said, and that means products developed to be 508-compliant are just now beginning to appear on the market. But that doesn't necessarily mean agencies are ready to buy them.

The acquisition process takes time. Some agencies are just now receiving products that were made two years ago.

"Many agencies are just going to [Microsoft] Windows 2000," Ruby said. It is unlikely that those agencies will buy the next-generation operating system, Windows XP, anytime soon. So "folks there may not be able to access the operating system with the most accessible features" for years to come.

The same product and purchasing cycles also affect the availability and acquisition of accessible hardware, said Michael Takemura, an accessibility specialist for Hewlett-Packard Co.

Computer manufacturers must wait for software producers to develop accessible operating systems and applications before they can build fully accessible computers. And then they can only sell when the government is buying.

Typically, agencies upgrade their computers, printers and other office equipment every "two years on the short side and four or five years on the long side," Takemura said. So employees at agencies with relatively new equipment and a long replacement cycle might not begin to see new, more accessible technology until 2005 to 2006.

Such delays are frustrating for those with disabilities. They expected faster relief when Congress passed and President Clinton signed Section 508 in 1998. But such delays were to be expected, said GSA's Weaver.

June 25, 2001, the day 508 took effect, "was a start date," she said. "Procurements take time." Compliance with Section 508 "wasn't designed to be immediate." And "the products have to be there before we can buy them."

No Quick Fix

Even when accessible products are available, accessibility isn't always as simple as buying the products and plugging them in. The complexities of operating systems, data systems and system architectures can make integrating accessible technology a challenge, Weaver said.

How easily new systems will fit in and function with legacy systems varies tremendously by agency, depending on factors as different as each agency's number of data systems, branch offices and teleworkers, she said.

But the complexity of 508 compliance is having at least one positive side effect, Weaver said — a growing number of federal technology chiefs are realizing that their agencies need better technology architectures, she said.

Some accessibility experts say understanding that is essential for success. "We've tried to push enterprise-level accessibility," said Louis Hutchinson, chief executive officer of Crunchy Technologies.

"Without that happening, you will see one segment of an agency become absolutely accessible, and then go down the hallway and see another part that isn't accessible at all." Or worse, the inaccessible branch will feed information that is not in a 508-compliant format to the accessible branch, gradually undermining its accessibility, he said.

For accessibility to prevail, strong requirements must become embedded throughout agency processes, Hutchinson said. And for the most part, that's not happening yet, he added.

Crunchy, which produces software tools for evaluating and improving the accessibility of applications and Web pages, works for nearly two dozen federal agencies, from NASA and the Army to the Small Business Administration.

During the past year, Hutchinson said, accessibility progress has been most evident on agency Web sites, where there "are certain pockets that are accessible and other pockets that are moving toward accessibility."

But often accessibility is only Web deep. "Most of the Web-based applications in government are interfaces to legacy applications that are not accessible," he said.

And even Web accessibility can be illusory.

Education Chief Information Officer Craig Luigart proclaimed his agency "in very, very good shape on Web compliance." Luigart is also chairman of the federal Section 508 Steering Committee.

"We have the vast preponderance of our Web material in compliance" with 508 standards, he said. "And each day, as older material is archived and new material is developed," the degree of accessibility increases.

Gauging Progress

A test of Education's Web site using automated accessibility-checking software by SSB Technologies Inc. yielded a compliance rating of 72 percent.

The accessibility checker, called Ask Alice, examined 408 randomly selected Education Web pages and found 1,030 accessibility errors.

Many accessibility experts question the accuracy of Ask Alice and similar compliance-checking tools. Automated tools can spot possible accessibility problems, but to get a really accurate accessibility analysis, a human being must check Web pages, said Michael Cooper of the Center for Applied Special Technology.

Many of the page elements that automated checkers identify as noncompliant actually are compliant, according to Cooper and other accessibility experts.

Luigart said a random sample of Education's Web pages does not provide a true picture of the Web site's accessibility. The department has concentrated on making the most-used of its 55,000 pages accessible, he said. A random sample likely includes some pages that are six or seven years old and rarely, if ever, used by the public.

Finding that a percentage of those pages are not 508-compliant would not be surprising, he said — but for practical purposes, those pages do not affect the general accessibility of Education's Web site.

From his post at the head of the Section 508 Steering Committee, Luigart said federal agencies "have moved aggressively" to implement Section 508. But he acknowledged that the pace of real progress in accessibility might best be described as "evolutionary."

Crunchy's Hutchinson has reached a similar conclusion. It is likely to take two or three more years before accessibility begins to be the norm in government agencies, he predicted. By then, much old equipment will have been replaced, some legacy applications will have been abandoned or modified, and new, accessible products will have been developed by industry and bought by agencies.

But Hutchinson is convinced that, eventually, accessibility will become the standard.

When that happens, products such as authoring tools will include wizards that won't allow authors to produce inaccessible Web pages or multimedia presentations, he said. And accessibility features will be built into most operating systems, while desktop applications will cause products lacking accessible features to seem so obviously deficient that they will be modified or replaced, he said. Perhaps. But for Chong and other accessibility advocates, progress made in the past year warrants only modest optimism.

"The process is so slow and there's so much to be done," Chong said. "There's lots of talk about 508 and lots of talk about accessibility, but really, all the problems still exist."

David Greco, CEO of SSB Technologies, agrees. "Based on our research, there's a long way to go," Greco said.

In addition to operating Ask Alice, SSB sells "accessibility solutions" to a number of federal agencies, including the Defense Department, the Social Security Administration and the Census Bureau. The company specializes in finding and fixing accessibility problems in agency Web sites and office applications.

"Our research shows a number of agencies are not very compliant at all," Greco said.

Ask Alice finds numerous accessibility defects in such heavily used government Web sites as those run by the White House, FirstGov, Education, the Transportation Department and others.

Despite its critics, Ask Alice "provides a reliable indication of a Web site's overall accessibility," Greco said.

In addition to checking Web sites, SSB often is asked to check the accessibility of agency software applications, and it frequently finds "significant issues related to accessibility." Even software that seems to meet Section 508 guidelines does not always work with specific assistive technology, he said.

"Most agencies are struggling with how to integrate accessibility software tools into their overall processes," he said. "But if you ask if 508 has been successful, I would say yes. Section 508 has catalyzed a lot of effort."

"Awareness is very high, and that's an accomplishment," agreed Goldberg of the National Center for Accessible Media. Before Section 508 took effect, agencies and technology manufacturers "had no compelling reason to pay attention to accessibility. Now they do."

Still, "there is a good deal of frustration" among people with disabilities who see accessibility as slow in coming, he said.

Even if the pace picks up, achieving accessibility will be an incremental process, Luigart said. "We will have solutions tomorrow that we do not have today, and the day after that we will have problems with technology that we do not have today," he said. But movement up "the learning ramp" is faster than movement down "the problem ramp."

Achieving accessibility "will take time," Chong conceded. At the first anniversary of Section 508, "we've seen the first baby steps taken. Let's hope the honeymoon isn't over."

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